WASHINGTON -- The gown is Vegas-lite -- form-fitting, flesh-colored fabric with curving strands of strategically placed beads.
It's barely anything, and at the same time it's too much.
The onlookers at Bob Mackie's fashion show at Neiman Marcus are buzzing. There's a familiar giddiness to the whispers. Only one word is clear: "Cher."
Since he first joined forces with the performer on the "Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" in the '70s, Mackie has been designing the showstoppers that helped make her a star.
"She was so small when we first did the [Sonny and Cher] show," Mackie, 59, said yesterday. "like a coat hanger, but an attractive one."
These days, Mackie -- who has lent his Midas touch to TV, movies, Broadway and the Vegas stage for nearly four decadent decades -- is everywhere.
He's on display: Nearly 150 of his creations are being exhibited in a retrospective at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He's in print: The book "Unmistakably Mackie" recently hit the shelves. He's on tour: Mackie is designing the sure-to-be spectacular costumes for Cher's "Believe" tour.
He'll push the boundaries of good taste. He'll gleefully defy critics in the name of humor. He'll put Cher in a mammoth Mohawk headdress, like he did at the 1986 Oscar ceremony.
"I'm all about upbeat," he says. "I don't believe in designing depressing clothes."
While growing up in '40s suburban Los Angeles, the one-man tribute to Hollywood glitz was seduced by the old-school style of Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. Addicted to the movies, he'd go home and fashion paper dolls of his beloved screen temptresses.
His inspiration has always come from "the women themselves," he says.
At 5, Mackie dressed up as Carmen Miranda. In his 50s, he's dressing RuPaul.
You could say he's adapted.
"It's a nice way to finish the millennium," Mackie says of his recent recognition.
With a ruddy complexion, easy smile and a way of making his frequent compliments sound utterly natural, he's part '40s gentleman, part game-show host.
He warmly offers suggestions to potential couture clients: "Shorten the sleeves a little bit. We'll have it perfect," he assures a woman who will be getting married in an intricately beaded Mackie wedding dress.
His own style is sequin-free. Today, the black jacket is Hugo Boss, the pinkish shirt Brooks Brothers. And the pants? He doesn't know. A multicolored bowtie accents his old-style character.
Behind the bowtie is a man responsible for some of the most memorable stitches of our time.
He accessorized Carol Burnett with a curtain rod for her "Went With the Wind" sketch that made television history. He turned Whoopi Goldberg into Queen Elizabeth at last year's Oscars. He's given Tina Turner wings. And, perhaps most notably, he bared Cher's bellybutton to the TV-watching public.
"Bob Mackie is more than Cher. There's a lot of depth to him," says Dorothy Twining Globus, director of the museum.
As the costume designer for both "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," Mackie's vision reached millions of women every week. He was the first to be awarded an Emmy for television costume design.
Yesterday, Mackie, known to some as the Liberace of fashion, proved that his inspiration doesn't have to be a Diana, Madonna or Barbra.
His fall and spring collections are suitable for the everyday diva, provided she has up to $12,000 to spare for a dress.
The show's soundtrack ranged from "The Girl from Ipanema" to Carmen. The clothes themselves were an equally eclectic mix, from a showgirl flapper frock with beaded fringe to Asian-influenced pastel suits. The models lounged on poufy silver ottomans, making cocktail party gestures and simulating conversation. Playful, flowing purple, canary yellow and russet chiffon dresses added a Supremes twist. Belted ball skirts with studded tops and a deep violet and black dress with a glitter-splashed tulle skirt were glam prom-perfect.
Though nothing approached Mackie's signature statements, theatrical flair was evident.
As soon as Linda Hohenfeld saw Mackie's green taffeta dress with a ruffled petticoat and delicate beaded vest, the singer from Potomac immediately envisioned herself on stage in it.
In a future concert, she'll be singing a Brazilian song. She'll be sharing the stage with eight cellos. She's in the market for a stunner.
"All things Latin are so popular now," she says. Mackie watches her approaching the mirror, examining herself from all angles.
"You're having a good time, aren't you?" he says.
It's a perfect fit. But Mackie is unlikely to sell the sample. "It's time to take it off, I know," she says with an exaggerated sigh. "The clock is striking 12."
"Wearable art" is a phrase often used for Mackie's clothes. Perhaps that's why some Mackie-worshipers, like Sorra-Lee Raven, 70, would never dream of disposing of a Mackie, even if it's unlikely they'll ever wear it again.
Breathless, in bulky red-framed glasses and a wide-brimmed black hat, Raven runs up to Mackie.
"I have a flaming red outfit of yours. It was the most magnificent thing. I wore it, I felt beautiful," she says, adding that she used to be a size 2. Now she's a 14.
Mackie answers empathetically.
"I wish I was the same size I was 20 years ago," he says.
Twenty years ago Mackie was ending his run as head costumer for "Carol Burnett" and "Sonny and Cher."
Now, variety shows are relegated to Nick at Nite. Stars like Mitzi Gaynor and Carol Channing aren't being born. And celebrities are as likely to step out in Birkenstocks as spiked heels.
But Mackie doesn't yearn for the past. He's been around long enough to know it usually returns, in some form or another, anyway.
"Hollywood glam might be coming back. Even the stars are getting a little bored and tired of simple," says Mary Lou Luther, a syndicated fashion columnist who has followed his career. "It's the right moment for Bob Mackie."